On any given day, a first responder can go from a simple traffic stop or a small bonfire to performing CPR on someone lying there with stuff coming out of their mouth with family screaming in the background pleading for them to do it faster. They will try doing it more quickly, all while knowing the person is gone. Let's not forget the calls where the first responders respond to a devastating accident scene where they now have to pick up bodies off the ground, some of which have their brain matter spread across the road. Pretty gruesome, I know, but these are just examples of traumatic events that first responders can face on any given day.
Responders are exposed regularly to serious injury, death, and they have to worry about keeping themselves, their colleagues, and civilians safe. They often find themselves in a situation where they have to make stressful split-second decisions. All of which lead to significant trauma symptoms.
There is a big misconception that PTSD can only happen if you were the direct victim of a traumatic event. However, PTSD can also occur to those who witness or hear about it; This is called vicarious trauma. First responders often experience this simply because they have a front-row seat to devastating scenes. In addition to vicarious trauma, the first responder is at risk for cumulative trauma due to the job's nature. On a busy night, a first responder can respond to several devastating calls.
So, with this knowledge, why is it still such a challenge addressing trauma in first responders? There are a few reasons for this; there is still a considerable stigma associated with mental health and the idea that their career will be over, and they will be found unfit for duty if they speak up, which can be a devastating loss. First responders believe they need to be tough; they cannot allow themselves to be affected by the things they see. They need to be in control; seeking help can be seen as a vulnerability and a weakness among peers and superiors.
Here is the reality all humans are vulnerable. We are not built to withstand and absorb such horrific things regularly. At some point or another, the impact will be felt simply because biologically, the human body and brain will react. It is no secret that many first responders suffer from substance abuse, specifically alcoholism; this is not a coincidence. First responders become easily agitated and irritable; they suffer from chronic pain, fatigue, obesity, and heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among active-duty firefighters, and let's not forget the alarming rate at which our first responders are ending their own lives.
The good news is that trauma can be fixed! Various evidence-based therapeutic interventions can help alleviate intense negative emotions connected to traumatic memories. What would it be like to alleviate hypervigilance so you could feel safe going to your kid's ball game or dance recital? What would it be like if you could come home and enjoy your family and be present instead of checking out in front of the TV or drinking yourself into a stupor?
If you are a first responder and you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders or your losing sleep to nightmares, reach out; there is help. Both you and your family deserve to be happy.
Ana Pais, LPC, NCC, CFRC